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Overcoming Social Jitters

Nine steps to improve your child’s confidence

It's perfectly normal for kids to feel nervous when they meet someone for the first time, try a new hobby or give a speech. But that flustered, jittery feeling isn't comfortable. Kids, like adults, may fear they'll say or do something stupid or embarrassing. And it's usually triggered by new, unpredictable social situations when a child's sense of self is on the line.

Shy kids rarely turn into social butterflies, cautions Bernardo Carducci, Ph.D., director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast and author of The Shyness Breakthrough. But parents can help kids develop social skills and confidence. Try these strategies.

1. Share your experiences. Your kids may not see you in challenging social situations, but you can recall what happened when you made a presentation at work or first started kickboxing class. Describe what you felt: racing heart, muscle tension, butterflies in your stomach, sweaty palms. Reveal your worries and emotions. Kids need to know their feelings are normal.

2. Stop catastrophic thinking. This refers to a tendency to overestimate the bad consequences of our social blunders, says Gillian Butler, clinical psychologist and author of Overcoming Social Anxiety and Shyness. Your son may think forgetting his lines in the school play will be the end of his social life. Help him notice and combat negative expectations. Social slipups are rarely as awful as kids imagine.

3. Channel anxious energy. Negative emotions aren't bad – they help us pay attention to important events. But they can be overwhelming. Help kids harness that hyped-up feeling and put it to constructive use preparing for the big event or working on a hobby. If kids focus on doing instead of worrying, nervous energy feels more like excitement than apprehension.

4. Be prepared. When kids don't know what to say, they may fear they'll clam up or stammer. Help your child prepare by identifying two conversation-starting questions she can use when she meets someone new. Open-ended questions work best, because they encourage the other person to share information. "Where did you go for vacation?" or "What is your favorite movie?" are good options. Of course, your child should be prepared to share her favorites, too.

5. Role play. Acting out feared encounters can help kids identify what works and learn that flustered feelings don't last forever. Rehearse simple scenarios, like meeting a new friend, asking a question in class, or giving a brief presentation at Scouts. Let mom, dad and the family dog serve as co-actors or audience members and practice until kids feel comfortable. Take role play seriously, but make it fun, too.

6. Get a home-field advantage. Familiar surroundings are comforting, and with all your child's own toys as props, he'll have more to talk about. Invite a classmate over to play for a short while. Get kids started on a shared activity before fading into the background. Don't interfere; let him find his own voice.

7. Get busy. It's easiest for kids to overcome jitters when activities distract them. Build skills in social situations that have strong "scripts" for behavior, like having a friend over for dinner, playing a board game or doing a craft together. The familiar knowledge of "what we do next" makes these situations a lot less frightening and conversation happens naturally. Move on to longer, less-scripted events – like sleepovers – when your child has developed more skills and confidence.

8. Praise progress. Changing behavior isn't easy, and kids' continuing concerns may keep them from seeing how far they've come. Point out specific behaviors and praise them. Say "You introduced yourself first," or "Your voice was clear and strong." If she made or sustained good eye contact, let her know you noticed. When kids know what they're doing right, they do it more and more often.

9. Take an honest look at temperament. Love your child for who he is, not for who you want him to become, Carducci advises. Kids can learn to warm up to new, unpredictable social situations with patient, persistent effort – but don't push. Allow your child time for relaxing, fun activities, including solitary play. It's hard to learn new skills when your stomach is queasy and your heart is racing.

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